Israel hits back after shells kill youth

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The Independent Online

Israel yesterday warned Hizbollah that it was "playing with fire" after anti-aircraft shells killed a 16-year-old youth and wounded four other civilians in the Western Galilee town of Shlomi. Air force helicopters hit back at the position from which the shells were fired.

Both sides rattled sabres, though neither appeared eager to escalate the confrontation, which stretched from the Middle East to the United Nations in New York over the weekend. During similar crises in 2001 Israeli warplanes twice attacked Syrian radar stations in northern Lebanon.

Ze'ev Boim, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, said: "If the situation continues, and the means we currently employ do not work, then the Israel Defence Forces will do whatever must be done to protect the residents of the north. We have no wish to open a new front, but we cannot agree to our people in the north being harmed."

Major-General Benny Ganz, the chief of Northern Command, said: "We aren't afraid of escalation. The ones who ought to be afraid are Syria, Lebanon and the residents of Lebanon. The choice is in their hands."

Sheikh Naeem Qassem, Hizbollah's deputy secretary-general, retorted that the Lebanese Shi'ite militia was "fully prepared and ready to respond in the appropriate manner to any Israeli aggression or threat."

An Israeli military spokesman said Hizbollah hit Shlomi with three 57 mm anti-aircraft shells. The victims were renovating a nursery school. The dead teenager, Haviv Dadon, suffered shrapnel wounds in the chest and arms.

The spokesman would not say whether any Israeli planes were patrolling at the time. Yesterday's was Israel's first civilian fatality on the border since March 2002 and the sixth since Israel withdrew its forces from Southern Lebanon three years ago.

After eight months of quiet, Hizbollah gunners attacked military positions with anti-tank missiles on Friday. Israel responded in kind, though no casualties were reported on either side during an hour-long exchange of fire. On Saturday, anti-aircraft missiles damaged a flat in the Upper Galilee town of Kiryat Shmona.

Hizbollah claimed it was retaliating for the death a week earlier of one of its officials, Ali Hussein Saleh, when a bomb ripped apart his car near Beirut. Lebanon blamed Israel, though three Lebanese have since been arrested in connection with the assassination.

Israel has launched a diplomatic offensive against Syria and Lebanon for failing to rein in Hizbollah. Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, wrote to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, protesting that Hizbollah had attacked Israel with Syria's consent.

Israel is making hay of the fact that Syria currently chairs the Security Council. It is threatening to "lay an ambush" by requesting an urgent meeting on the border crisis. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Jerusalem said it would decide today (Monday) after consultations with the Americans.

Mr Gillerman told Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper: "The absurd thing is that Syria, which is a known disseminator of terror, will have to run a Security Council meeting in which we will raise the issue of its support for Hizbollah. It will be an historic opportunity to expose Syrian hypocrisy." On another front, Israel yesterday placed a closure on Palestinian areas of the West Bank town of Hebron. It was the first such restriction imposed since the Palestinians declared a ceasefire five weeks ago.

Hamas clamed responsibility for rockets that hit a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip on Saturday. In Jerusalem yesterday a Palestinian attacked two Israeli policewomen who asked to see his identity card. He hit one with a stick and bit the other's arm before reinforcements arrived to restrain him.

Israel yesterday published the names of another 77 Palestinian prisoners it proposes to release soon, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders continued to denounce each other for the fact that the international "road map" to peace seemed to be going nowhere.

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